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Protect Our Parks

Salmon & Sovereignty

The salmon’s journey back to its spawning grounds in Olympic National Park promotes food sovereignty for the Lower Elwha Klallam people.

Walk from Olympic’s moody beaches, past its sparkling rivers and under its towering old growth cedars, and you’ll be journeying the same path a very important Olympic Peninsula ancestor has journeyed for 10,000 years.

In September 2011, when the removal process of two dams started on the Elwha River just outside Olympic National Park, many diverse groups from environmentalists to scientists to the tribes of the Olympic Peninsula celebrated.

There were many reasons to celebrate the Elwha returning to its natural flow, but perhaps the biggest reason was the return of the salmon – that 10,000-year-old ancestor.

The salmon is a keystone species – a species on which others in the ecosystem largely depend. If a keystone species is removed, it drastically changes the entire system.

When our meat comes sealed in plastic and Styrofoam at the grocery store and our fruits and vegetables are shiny with protective wax, it’s easy to forget that humans are still part of the ecosystem. 

And the humans that are perhaps most intricately woven into the ecosystem of the Elwha River? The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (pronounced el-weh kla-lum), who have relied on salmon as a staple in their diet for as far back as their remembered history reaches. 

Salmon contain essential fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals like potassium and selenium and antioxidants, all which help support the human body in different ways from heart health to brain health to fighting inflammation. 

“We see the salmon as our relative,” Valerie Segrest, a Native foods nutritionist and educator who focuses her work on food sovereignty and efforts in tribal communities. 

Valerie Segrest of the Muckelshoot Indian Tribe near Seattle
Valerie Segrest of the Muckelshoot Indian Tribe near Seattle Photo: US Dept. of Agriculture

Segrest is a member of the Muckleshoot Tribe. Like the Lower Elwha Klallam, the Muckleshoot are Coast Salish people. The Coast Salish are a group of Indigenous people made up of many tribes from the Pacific Northwest, ranging from British Columbia to Oregon. These tribes are ethnically and linguistically related but are also connected by the fish that call the Elwha River, and so many other waters in this part of the country, home. The salmon.

“We are the salmon people, or the salmon nation,” says Segrest.

When you view a resource like salmon through the lens of personhood, it changes the whole equation.

“The salmon is born here in these rivers and travels, collecting nutrients and beautiful medicines like healthy fats and life-giving minerals before returning home, bloodying itself, doing whatever it takes to ultimately give up its life for the next generation,” says Segrest. 

Following their journey upstream, the female salmon die shortly after laying their eggs. Their bodies feed more than 130 species of wildlife, but more than that they also bring rich nutrients from the ocean to the peninsula’s ecosystem, nourishing vegetation, like the cedar trees. 

“How can we be more like the salmon? They’re such good teachers of abundance, curiosity, adventure and they take care of the land.

Segrest works to promote food sovereignty efforts with tribes across the country. What is food sovereignty? According to Segrest it is the inherent right to define your own diet and as a community, collectively shape our food system. 

For Segrest and many other Indigenous food sovereignty advocates, that means prioritizing the cultivation and consumption of their ancestral foods. 

When she goes to the grocery store and purchases food, it’s transactional. She, like millions of Americans, puts a packaged item in her cart and exchanges money for it. In comparison, traditional foods can be transformational. It’s about so much more than just eating the food, she says. It’s about being out in nature and being connected to the land and breathing the air as you harvest the food. It’s about cooking recipes handed down for generations and experiencing community as you eat the foods with your people. 

“We say we need to feed our Indian,” says Segrest. “What we mean is that we’re hungry for our foods. Traditional foods like salmon and camas and nettle tea are medicine.”

The Lower Elwha River begins amongst the snowy peaks of the Olympic Range in Olympic National Park in Washington. Historically the wild river flowed through the mountains and rainforests all the way to the ocean. Each year, 11 species of salmon and trout would swim from the Pacific against the current to their spawning grounds, thriving on the cold and clear waters.

Aerial view of the mouth of the Elwha River
Aerial view of the mouth of the Elwha River Photo: Flickr/Sam Beebe

In the early 1900s, two dams were built on the Elwha to generate hydropower for the quickly growing city of Port Angeles and the peninsula’s logging industry. What was once a vast spawning ground for many fish species became just a five-mile stretch of river. Sediment that would naturally flow downstream to create riverbanks and habitat became trapped behind the dams and the few spawning grounds that remained quickly began to erode.

By the 1980s, salmon populations in the Elwha and across the entire Pacific Northwest were threatened.

The Lower Elwha Klallam’s traditional diet, dating back thousands of years, consisted mainly of fish, especially salmon, and shellfish until the early 2000s. 

In an interview Lower Elwha Klallam Clean-Up Coordinator Larry Dunn conducted with an elder, she recalls eating salmon for every meal on the Elwha Reservation in the early 1900s. By 1990, the dams had already severely impacted the salmon runs. That year, according to tribal fisheries records shared in a paper by Dunn, the Tribe’s salmon harvest was just over 170,000 pounds for the entire year. By 2008, that number had decreased to under 2,000 pounds. Around the same time, the tribe also dramatically decreased their shellfish harvest as high levels of pollutants were discovered in the shellfish of Port Angeles Harbor.

When environmental factors like habitat loss and pollution took away the Lower Elwha Klallam’s main food supply, it also took away their food sovereignty.

One of the effects? With the Lower Elwha Klallam, that meant an increase in nutrition related diseases like diabetes and obesity which, according to a 2006 Center for Disease Control Survey, were significantly higher than the national average. 

“No Indigenous language in North America ever had a word for diabetes,” Segrest reflects. Yet today, according to the American Diabetes Association, 14.7% of American Indian and Alaska Native adults have diabetes, the highest of any ethnic background in the country. It is one of the top three causes of mortality among American Indian populations.

Other nutrition-related, mostly preventable diseases, like obesity and heart disease, also disproportionately affect Native Americans. 

“Nowadays our harvesting grounds are KFC and Safeway and Albertsons,” Segrest reflects in a podcast conversation on All My Relations. “How are you going to help our people strengthen their sovereignty when they’re navigating those kinds of food systems?” 

The first challenges to food sovereignty came when the U.S. government forced Native Americans off their homelands and onto reservations in the 1800s and 1900s. Disconnected from their traditional foods, Native Americans were given rations that were lower in nutritional value than the foods they had survived on for thousands of years and, often even rancid, according to Feeding Ourselves, a 2015 report by Echo Hawk Consulting, commissioned by the American Heart Association. (…)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Access Atlas, almost all of Indian Country today experiences life in a food desert. This means that residents are more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store. The Diné Policy Institute found that members of the Navajo Nation were driving at least 155 miles round trip to get groceries. For the average car, that’s half a tank of gas and over two hours of driving at highway speeds. In grocery stores’ absence, convenience stores and other shops lacking fresh produce and supplying foods high in carbs, sugars and fats often offer the closest, fastest and cheapest food solutions. 

The term “food desert”, though, bothers many food sovereignty advocates. To start with, deserts have fed people for thousands of years. Then, there’s the misnomer that just because there’s no grocery store nearby, that there is no access to food.

Take the Lower Elwha Klallam, for example. The land fed them well until this century, when environmental factors from colonialism affected the salmon runs and shellfish harvests on the Olympic Peninsula.

Health and economic concerns are just one effect of the loss of food sovereignty. The cultural impact is also significant.

Imagine, for a moment, that on 4th of July weekend you head to your neighborhood grocery store. Shockingly, the meat coolers are empty. There’s not a pound of ground beef or a hot dog to be seen. You head over to the condiments, thinking you might at least save the day with your grandmother’s potato salad recipe, and there’s a big recall notice posted where the mayonnaise should be. It’s been contaminated. Your friends tell you the same thing is happening at grocery stores all over your city. You’ve heard rumors that there might be barbeque supplies at a store several hours away, but the drive and cost is prohibitive. 

What does 4th of July look like without grilling? Sure, you could order a pizza, but it won’t be the same. There’s something quintessential about smoke from the grill mixing with hot summer air, gathering with friends and family, cooking generational recipes and celebrating a day that means something to you.

Now, imagine that instead of those traditions being a couple hundred years old, those traditions are tens of thousands of years old.     

For Segrest and so many others, food sovereignty goes deeper than just health benefits. Food traditions are an inherent part of identity and culture. Eating traditional foods helps Segrest feel more grounded and connected to the land.

Each year when the camas bulbs —a plant used by Native Americans for both medicinal purposes and to roast or make bread—are in  bloom, Segrest heads to these lily bulb prairies left behind by ancient glaciers to harvest.

“My ancestors took care of this land,” she says. “Without them, the forest would have taken over the prairies. When I see the beautiful blue-purple flowers, I know I’m standing in the garden of my great, great, great, great – I don’t even know how many greats – grandmother. Where else on this planet could I possibly be right now but here?”

Purple camas flowers
Purple camas flowers (Photo: Getty Images)

Segrest shares a story of a Native American veteran whom she taught during a class on earthen ovens. He was suffering from PTSD. As he learned about traditional foods and how to prepare the oven and the foods themselves, it became a sort of ceremony for him and his family.

“He stopped needing his PTSD medication because he’d found a sense of purpose and place, of belonging by learning these practices.” she shares. 

These are the roots of much of the work Segrest does around food sovereignty space. Educating tribes on their traditional foods including harvest, health benefits and preparation, protecting those native food systems and promoting access to hunting, gathering and fishing rights are all part of the advocacy work that goes on in the food sovereignty space.  

Whether you’re native to this continent or not, food traditions are something we all share. Think about your 4th of July barbeque. Even traditional foods for the Coast Salish people can be found growing around the world. You’ll find salmon in cold waters from Alaska to Norway to Japan to the Olympic Peninsula.

“The salmon give their lives for us to have life,” Segrest shares on her work advocating for wild salmon. “We have the ability to speak and advocate, the least we can do is be good friends of the species.”

Today the dams on the Lower Elwha have been fully removed and the river is returning to its historic flows. The 2019 count saw more than 7,600 fish, a number not seen since the 1980s.

“We haven’t even seen the large returns yet,” says Robert Elofson, a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe who has dedicated his life and his career to the salmon’s successful return to the Elwha. “I can’t imagine seeing them in five years. It’s already so beautiful to watch.”

The Elwha is a success story but there are still countless dams across the American West blocking salmon spawns, affecting Native food systems and drastically changing the ecosystem.

How can you help? Start by learning about the tribes whose ancestral and current homelands you live on or near and what issues they’re facing. Another great way is to support Native food systems, according to Segrest? Buying your fish, especially salmon, from tribal fisheries helps support food sovereignty. You can find a list of foods made and/or produced by American Indians at